Friday, August 15, 2008

See-Through Vicki

Sunday morning I wake up and Jonaki is already awake, sitting on the porch with biscuits and wonderful, warm ginger tea, served to us in a yellow thermos with a blue dragon on it. Dogs are milling around: Tommy and Bulbul and Phoebe. Raju properly introduced us to his crew after dinner on Saturday night. Bulbul is the youngest, and she is a female. Phoebe is the oldest. Yeti, the fluffy white dog, loves to hike the most. He’s your trail guide. Tommy the lab wasn’t even Raju’s dog, but just showed up one day and didn’t leave. I think Tommy is a funny name for an Indian dog, but Jonaki says it’s actually pretty common. British soldiers were called Tommy and it just kind of stuck as something to call your dog when there were no more British soldiers around.

I share my biscuits with the dogs and enjoy more than one cup of tea as white clouds brush past the blue sky. I am so happy to see that the sky is still blue somewhere after seeing only the milky yellow haze of Delhi for over a month.

We’d read the paper, but we’ve already read it. Twice. It’s from Friday, August 9th: the last time Raju went to town.

We sit talking about Jonaki’s experiences living in the United States while she studied at the University of Illinois. We talk about being homesick and the things you miss, like food. We talk about how Indian sugar is different from what I’m used to. Here it comes in big crystals that you can crunch.

Men with baskets full of apples strapped to their backs come from the adjacent hill. Kirin shows up, asking what kind of eggs we want. Omelets are fine. I look forward to a reprise of yesterday’s breakfast. It made the food at the Ahuja Residency look pretty sad in comparison. All that homemade jelly and fresh, fluffy eggs can put a girl in a good mood.

After breakfast, we decide to take a walk to town, maybe hike a little past town towards the entrance to the adjacent national park. It looks cloudy, so I take my umbrella just in case. Yeti whimpers and runs ahead, and Bulbul tags along as well.

There is no goatherd this time, only the trees and rocks and river and our trusty trail guides. It starts to rain and I unfold my tiny polka-dotted umbrella. It doesn’t do a very thorough job of keeping me dry, but it tries.

We approach the school building and see a few villagers, children in dirty cotton sweaters and men with baskets coming down from the hills. Women’s clothing here is none of the fine, bright fabrics I see in the city. Here, at higher altitudes, they dress in layers of dark cotton and wool from yak and angora rabbits. The thin men wear collared shirts with woolen vests over them. Men, women and children glare at me even when I look back and smile. This far off the beaten path, I am sure they don’t see many white people—and, it seems, they like it that way.

We follow Yeti’s springing steps over the blue bridge which sways with the footfalls of the people crossing with us. Jonaki is a little nervous about it. I reassure her. I checked out the cables the bridge hangs on and they look good and strong. The rain falls as we climb the stone stairs up to street level where two dogs full of ticks await our arrival. Yeti runs ahead and Bulbul stays with us, cautious. This time we walk into the town instead of away from it. There are little stalls with tobacco and fruit. There’s a bank. There’s a run-down temple with an advertisement for some computer service on it and a dirt courtyard strewn with rubbish. There’s a sort of general store with some food stuffs. Jonaki stops and speaks to three men here in Hindi. She wants to know the way to the park. They laugh and point at me standing behind with my polka-dotted umbrella. “Slip, slip, slip,” they tell her. We shouldn’t go hiking in the rain. We’ll fall, they laugh and point.

The dogs that greeted us are now circling around Bulbul, sniffing her behind, dominantly pushing her with their shoulders. She tries to walk away but is stopped by another male dog. She puts her head down and submits. She’s a sweet little girl with sad eyes and she’s getting pushed around. I don’t want her to get full of the town dogs’ ticks. Worse, I don’t want them to hump her. I shoo them away with my foot before things can go any further.

Jonaki comes back from talking to the men. She doesn’t like the way they are acting at all. She doesn’t know why they keep laughing. I look up and see them making faces in my general direction. Further off, people in all directions are glaring. I feel the dogs circling around me and agree with Jonaki. Let’s take Bulbul and get out of here. We call to Yeti who has run off ahead. He comes bounding back, ears flopping, and beats us to the bridge.

Jonaki is more surprised than I am at the villagers’ reactions to us. I explain to her that it’s pretty common that I get this reaction: people, especially men, find me either titillating or hilarious. I think of the auto-wallah who laughed me all the way home after church last week. I think of Sonu who loves me. I tell her that even when I’m out walking around the office, I get lots of unfriendly glares. The men won’t smile even when I nod or smile.

She tells me to cut it out. Smiling at them only encourages them; I’m making it worse for myself. I shouldn’t make eye contact. This happens to even the Indian women around the office when they walk around the industrial estate. So it’s not just a white thing. It’s a woman thing.

She tells me that when she was younger she used to go outside and take walks and run all the time, until she hit puberty. Then she suddenly started feeling violated when she went outside. Men would brush her on purpose as they walked past. Men would pinch her when she rode the bus. And it makes no difference if you confront them and try to shame them. They just laugh.

Women here are still largely objects, possessions to be either protected or coveted. Gender roles are still rather starkly assigned and observed. I think of the Indian couple at church who was leaving for the United States and how only the husband got to speak to the congregation while the wife stood silently behind him. Jonaki says it’s rare to find an Indian man who will help with the housework. Theirs is the realm of commerce. Every shopkeeper is a man. Every auto-wallah is a man. There was one female auto-wallah in Mumbai, Jonaki said, and it was a huge news story. Out on the streets of Delhi, you wonder where all the women are. They are at home, doing women’s work.

People have told Jonaki she’ll have to compromise and settle in order to get married, but she’s having none of it. I don’t blame her.

I wonder how you change these conditions in a country as diverse and varied as India. I wonder if you can. It seems so huge, so insurmountable. I think it must have felt like that in the United States before suffrage, before women were even considered full citizens. I thank God that there were women who thought they could change these societal norms. What hope, what vision, what faith they must have had to look around at a world full of men and think that they, too, should own it. They, too, should be in control of their own destinies.

Sexism is alive and well in the United States, but the level of respect and equality enjoyed by women as a matter of course is just one more thing that is so easy to take for granted. Imagine not being able to take a walk without feeling like a piece of raw meat in a tiger’s den. I know I take all my jogs through Coralville for granted. I take it for granted that I can go grocery shopping after dark and feel safe. I take it for granted that I can use public transportation without being felt up. I take it for granted and I miss it.

Back at the cottage, Jonaki, Bulbul and I find Yeti waiting for us. He has apparently taken a short cut.

We spend the rest of the day eating, writing, eating, reading and talking. Workers return from the hills with more apples strapped to their backs. A group of women returns with bales of long grass to feed the cows. Tommy the black lab comes bounding after them, full of big mountain ticks. This is where he gets his ticks from: the long grass.

Since my clock is on the fritz, I tell time by what I’ve eaten and the angle of the sun. As it begins to drop down over the ridge, I think it’s almost time for dinner. Before I eat, I ask Kirin if I can check my email, and he fires up the computer for me.

After dinner, we stand around by the fire pit, looking up at thousands of stars. Jonaki remembers her parents telling her to count the stars one time when she was little—and she eagerly tried to do it.

A couple from Mumbai offers us some whiskey. The woman has an olive complexion and looks like she could belong to almost any nationality in the world. I can’t quite make out her accent, but she speaks good English. She’s quiet and looks at the stars with a smile on her clean face.

Raju joins us as well. He is bemoaning the fact that people throw their garbage all over in the cities. There is no garbage thrown at Raju’s cottage—and it is just about the only refuse-free place I’ve seen so far. Even the trails behind his house and the remote village of Gushaini are littered here and there.

I ask Raju if many Americans stay here. “Yes,” he says. The American ambassador was here. And then the police had to come. This is where his English gives out. He tells the rest of the story to the man from Mumbai, who says after speaking some Hindi, “That must’ve been many years ago.”

Eight years ago, or ten years ago, Raju confirms. I wonder if the police were the Indian police, or if they were just the security that the Ambassador would have warranted, or if there was some kind of incident. I think it’s best to keep a low profile and stay away from town. I think of my guidebook’s warning “fatal vacations.” I feel safe at the cottage. Raju and his workers are friendly and respectful. But straying too far away seems inadvisable. I’ve heard gunfire in the hills. Who knows what’s going on out there?

Phoebe is an American, Raju offers, finding his English again. She came from the meditation centre in Kullu, about two hours away. Lots of Americans go there to visit, and they also run an animal shelter. She was left there by some meditating Americans.

The little brown dog with the pensive eyes sits at my feet soaking in her story and the pets I am giving her. She is seventeen, Raju says. I can’t believe it. She’s been following us up the steep trail with no sign of arthritis. She doesn’t even have any gray hair. The only sign of her age are her little rotten front teeth. The hills have treated Phoebe well.

We say goodnight to our company and retire for the evening. I take out the book Vivek lent me, What Religion Is, by Swami Vivekananda. “He went to Chicago, you know,” Jonaki tells me. Just then it dawns on me that Swami Vivekananda was the man Lowden Singh was trying to tell me about when I visited Akshardam Temple, the man he was astounded I didn’t know.

Jonaki says every Indian knows the story, so it would make sense if someone was surprised that I didn’t know it. Lowden Singh, our paths converge again!

Swami Vivekananda went to Chicago in 1893 to speak at a world parliament of religions. He spent years afterwards traveling in the west, in the U.S. and Britain, speaking of the notion of a universal religion. The book I’m reading is a collection of his writings and lectures about this notion.

Near the beginning of the book, the Swami talks about religion as being a human’s search to draw close to God. He says that many people want to lie back and expect religion to find them, to inspire them, to come to them and are disappointed when they feel a lack of spirituality. But, he says, we wouldn’t try this with any other discipline. We wouldn’t, for instance, cry out, “Oh chemistry, come to me.” We’d go to the lab and study elements and conduct experiments. I like this analogy. I want to go to the lab with him and mess around with some test tubes and Bunsen burners.

There’s another passage that catches me and gives me pause; it’s a story about the Swami meeting his spiritual master, Ramakrishna. Ramakrishna effectively showed the Swami his soul by touching him one day. Swami describes the experience thusly:

With my eyes wide open, I saw that the walls and everything else in the room
were whirling around, vanishing into nothingness; the whole universe, together
with my own individuality, was about to be lost in an all-encompassing,
mysterious Void! I was terribly frightened and thought I must be facing
death—for the loss of my individuality meant nothing less than that to me.

In Hinduism, this is the vision of the soul, the divine, the “god” in each person who gets greeted by the “Namaste”. The divine in me recognizes the divine in you—because it is part of the same divinity. In Hinduism, the soul is part of a unity rather than something with a personal identity.

The idea makes me spin, too. I understand Swami’s description of feeling unglued by this notion because it is a disorienting one. I’ve always thought of my soul as a see-through version of myself. She wears the same clothes, has the same haircut, uses the same brand of deodorant, cracks the same sarcastic jokes I do. Does my sould have to change her underpants? I think.

I realize I don’t have a really solid notion of my soul. What is my soul? How can I not know it? Is it the see-though me or is it something more like Vivekananda describes?

I can’t allow myself to think too deeply about this notion. Not in the mountains. Not so far away from my family. I can’t face the whirling nothingness by myself, not when there’s no one to run home to and hug afterwards.

Maybe I will ask myself this question at the Lotus Temple, I think, where there is an overwhelming sense that everything is okay.

It’s a good question for the Lotus Temple where I know if I’m not ready for an answer, I won’t get one. And if I am ready, it will come.

No comments: